Old Bolingbroke

It is not often that a place is better to visit in winter than summer but Old Bolingbroke, nestled in a deep valley and protected by hills on three sides, is a good destination in winter or early Spring. The main attraction is the ruined castle which though not high has an intact curtain wall as well as a moat surrounding much of it. Both are most exposed early in the year when vegetation has died back and the moat is most full. Also the walls change colour during the damp months of the year becoming a vibrant green as the moss on the walls flourishes in these conditions. At its height in December it can be the envy of Japanese gardeners who take great pains to create such an effect. 

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The greenstone interior walls of the castle.

This winter was one of the wettest in memory and the moat was full with no wind to ripple the water and the walls were a vivid green when I visited. The walls appropriately are built from greenstone, a local sandstone, which is dark brown when quarried but weathers to green in the right circumstances most noticeably on north facing walls. The stone for the castle was probably quarried very locally just half a mile away on Spilsby Hill overlooking the east side of the village. The road climbing the hill cuts through as a hollow way to modify the steep gradient and is often wet in winter from small springs issuing out of the hillside. The old quarry is hidden by overhanging trees but there is access to it via a footpath opposite the entrance to Sowdale nature reserve. This is a reserve belonging to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and is the largest in the Wolds stretching the full length of the dale. The stream that occupies it is fast flowing and during the wettest parts of the winter was a raging torrent for brief periods with evidence remaining in the sandy soil which it washed down and deposited in places where the flow eased or was blocked. Even if you are not a trust member much of the usually wild wold valley can be admired from the roadside entrance.

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The beck that runs through Sowdale.

Access to the hidden quarry meanwhile is tricky as it is always wet and boggy close to the road but once on the hill the footpath becomes mostly dry and sandy. At the far end of the field the path passes a large ash tree and though not immediately obvious the old quarry stretched from here to the road. It now just looks like a steep grassy hill but on closer observation it is clear to see how a wedge has been excavated from out of the hillside. This may not have been the only quarry needed to build the castle and stone was also needed to build the once large church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the centre of the village of which only the south aisle and the large perpendicular tower remain.

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The church of St Peter & Paul’s in the centre of the village.

The original full sized church was built in the decorative style and the castle built a century earlier were for a time all under the patronage of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, whose son Henry Bolingbroke, who later became King Henry IV, was born here. The church tower can be admired from the top of the hill set in the middle of the wooded village and to the south a little further along the footpath are impressive views across to Hall Hill and in the distance Boston Stump rises high above the broad expanse of flat fen. It however was built of the best limestone available shipped across the Fens by barge from the limestone escarpment in the west of the county.

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The castle walls and moat.

Across the dale on Dewy Hill stood an older fortification, possibly a motte and bailey castle, of which the only clue to its site is a distinctively level piece of land in an otherwise continuously undulating landscape. Both Bolingbroke Castle and the church were casualties of a Roundhead attack on the Royalist stronghold during the early years of the English Civil War. There is still much to see in the village with a pub, the site of an old watermill and many quiet lanes to explore with Hagnaby Beck often flowing close by as it passes right through the centre of the village. 

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The old watermill close to the entrance to the castle.

Walking around the village you get a sense of forgotten grandeur. This is because it was a ancient soke centre and although at the time of the Domesday book there was a market, a church and three watermills and three hundred years later the patronage of John of Gaunt, who greatly enlarged the church, as a market town it was later eclipsed by Spilsby, just two miles away astride the eastern end of the sandstone ridge. The little town was only a hamlet at the time of the Domesday Book but from the beginning of  the fourteenth century it came under the patronage of the Willoughby family, which continued for many more generations.  (See Langton Old Road and Partney and Spilsby Blogs.) 

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St Peter and Paul’s taken from above the old quarry.

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